Do the Beats Matter Today?
by Harry Burrus
When Jack Kerouac died in 1969, only one of his 20+ books was in print. At the time, many critics announced the Beat Generation was irrelevant and had faded away. Others claimed the Beats were an insignificant force, addicted to sex and drugs, and therefore of little permanent influence, and only interested in the frivolity of having “kicks.” They contended the Beats’ writing would not hold up over time. However, objective evidence clearly establishes those critics were dead wrong.
The essential tenets of Beat philosophy still resonate strongly today. The Beats’ rants against excessive consumerism, government control and torture, censorship, the increasing power of the Pentagon, and the proliferation of American soldiers in foreign countries are cogent now. The Beats respected and valued the land and were advocates for a healthy world environment, all of which continue to be significant concerns. They promoted tolerance of ideological differences, which they saw as being subverted to a political sameness — the position if you aren’t in agreement with us, you’re against us. Sound familiar?
Recognizing the current impact of the Beats, William S. Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris notes,
They asked the relevant question themselves. It was one of the things that united the writers and adventurers we call Beat — and their answers looked both backwards (glancing conservatively, towards a ‘lost’ American past) and forwards, nostalgically (to face looming death, the rags of old age and the ruins of civilization) and heroically (to face the unknown, that which lies beyond the little bit of ourselves we know). So, perhaps they matter because, at their best, they inspire us to look back for what’s been lost and forward to what we need to lose.
In Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs revealed he did not share the rose-tinted view of most Americans in the post-WWII era. With microscopic detail, he peeled away the picturesque façade of modern society, exposing it for what it really was. He predicted the late 20th century AIDS crisis and the advent of the Internet with its viruses, worms, and spam. He forecasted the war on drugs and terrorists. Underscoring the continuing literary and social significance of William S. Burroughs, Harris has edited and authored a number of Burroughs books: The Letters of WSB, 1945-1959; Yage Letters Redux; Junky: the definitive text of Junk; William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination; and Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of WSB.
Similarly, in Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland extols the importance of Kerouac today. He focuses on the Jack Kerouac-based character Sal Paradise in On the Road instead of the one who usually attracts the most attention, Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady), who enthusiastically pursues sex, speed, and jazz in the novel. Leland analyzes Paradise’s impressions from his journeys with Moriarty. He explains that what Paradise learns about love, having a work ethic, valuing art and education, and being spiritual are life lessons that still echo today.
Another aspect of Kerouac’s work with current ramifications is his criticism of haiku. He was a major influence in bringing haiku to the West. His interpretation of haiku was experimental and innovative. His creation of “Western haiku” materially impacts current poets’ approach to creating haiku today.
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco sells ten copies of On the Road daily. The Kerouac estate claims that over 100,000 copies of OTR are sold each year. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado continues to attract students, encouraging them to link the past to the present and to apply a fresh approach to their writing. Stanford University bought Ginsberg’s archive and the New York Public Library recently purchased William S. Burroughs’ literary archive.
Time not only has substantiated the merit of the writing of the Beats, but has validated it as well. The Beat worldview embraced life and celebrated the human condition. On the Road’s raw energy encourages curiosity, the refusal to accept the status quo, and the need to investigate what lies over the horizon. It inspires self-pride and the drive to succeed, regardless of social status. The Beats’ criticism of America in the 1940s and 1950s is instructional because it applies to many of the conditions confronting the United States today. Current writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers cite the Beats as their beacons. New bios as well as scholarly books examining their writing, lives, and values continue to come out with great frequency. Beat magazines, paper and online, are widely read and popular. Their book sales are the highest ever. Universities have Beat literature as part of their curriculum. The significance of the Beat writers on current American literature continues to evolve because new work has only recently been discovered. The unpublished work is revealed in books and magazines and reviewed by international newspapers and scholars. The Beats are alive and well in these first few years of the 21stcentury and continue to pervade our lives today.